Apr/May 2022  •   Fiction

Year Zero

by Michael Aliprandini

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane

Joseph Hearne would soon be dead. I would kill him. To that end, I rode the metro northeast.

The construction boom hadn't touched the neighborhood into which I emerged. Here there were no cranes swiveling across the skyline, no crews tearing up bad roads. Brezhnev-era apartment blocks rose in a forbidding arena as if to keep the capital's newfound wealth and rapid changes at bay. In the Moscow center it was 2006. Here in the decrepit outskirts it may as well have been the late '80s. For me it was year zero.

With the first volley of Russian summer, unencumbered by the weight and drear of the wintry months, droves of shoppers and conscripts in damp uniforms were moving toward the outdoor market. I joined their crush through the narrow gateway. The market's reputation for shoddy merchandise and shady deals was as vast as its creeping perimeter. Chronic rumors of police interference kept the trading brisk and urged on the cries for Tashkent cherries and pickled salads. The merchants were a Soviet cornucopia of Azeri, Georgians, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, most of them without proper documents. After each sale, they flicked their mounds of muddy vegetables with the rubles notes they'd just earned, inviting future returns.

My own shady dealings brought me to the beer garden at the center of the market. I was leaning against a rail around the empty bandstand when an arm slipped under mine. The dark, delicate youth wore a white skullcap embroidered in white thread. He tucked one of my passport photos into the pocket of his shalwar kameez and escorted me back into the crowds.

Lane after lane of kiosks and stalls looped around a cluster of two-story buildings looking as impermanent as the market's more haphazard structures of plank and corrugated steel. We turned up a flight of freshly mopped stairs, and the youth left me in a sunny room lined with chairs. Three men conferred in low tones near an electric samovar. They looked me over; they looked away. A boy carrying a tray with two cups of tea and a clean ashtray showed me into Azad's office. Its atmosphere trumped my expectations of illicit glamour in the new Russia, unless the chintzy furniture and Azad's badly seamed suit and malodorous stocking feet were a humble disguise. A laminated arrow tacked to the ceiling pointed toward Mecca.

"Your son?" I asked.

"My children are studying," he said.

I was always above board in my financial dealings, so I made haste to hand over the last installment of cash. Azad leaned back, waving it off with an irritated air and pulling a pack of American cigarettes from his desk drawer. He pushed the pack toward me. As we smoked, I played around with a couple words of Farsi. Only after such preliminaries was he ready to discuss business.

"I need to know why you came to me," he said, in Russian.

"Because you're known as the expert in Moscow for fake documents."

"No. Why do you need another identity? Did you do something illegal? Surprises aren't good for anyone."

I paused, gathering my lies. "A girl. Debts. A kid. Nothing very interesting."

Azad wiped a hand downward along his bearded cheeks. I didn't need to lie to him, of course. He wouldn't try to hold me back. He didn't know my life to judge what it should be, should become. Azad was a stranger, and strangers didn't have the power to hem me in. On the contrary, strangers would be my means of escape and, later, my camouflage.

Since our interview appeared to be over, I brought out the roll of dollars again. He slid an envelope across the desk with his heavy third finger and held it there a few seconds. "Most of all we want to be free of ourselves. And how can we be?" he said. "But this isn't my business or my specialty. I'm paid to make certain administrative changes."

In my anticipation I left aside a sheet with the instructions for Krakow and took out the maroon-colored document. Fortunately, Azad was more adept at forging passports than he was at detecting motive. How wrongheaded he was to assume it was myself I wished to escape, when it was myself—stripped, uncomplicated—I wished to realize.

"It's perfect," I said. "You're an artist."

"More like a plastic surgeon. Except you do the cutting."

"Yes," I said through a gush of thrill and fear.

Azad made to stand. It was nearly the hour of prayer. "In Krakow you'll meet Daniel. Give him my regards. Regards from Atesh."

I couldn't help smiling. "It's useful to have another identity, isn't it?"

He gave a sage nod.

Searching for an exit from the market, I became lost in the crowded lanes and clamor. Old gold-toothed women when we bumped wheeled on me like the turret of a tank, and a cart teetering with crates rolled over my foot. By the time I found my way out, I'd ended up a good distance from the nearest metro station, according to a flower seller who groused as though I'd asked whether Minsk was one street over.


I caught a late train from Kursky Station to the town I'd been living in, east of Moscow. The carriage started half-full and emptied out as passengers disembarked at the small stations before my own. Usually I read on trains, but tonight my attention was fixated on the document secreted beneath my shirt, rushing ahead to the final performance awaiting me. I imagined being on the stage of a darkened theater. The audience, oblivious on the other side of the curtain, has settled in. The curtain parts on darkness. The footlights go up. Aside from my cast-off costume and the superficial shadows on the wall, the stage is empty. I have slipped through the trap door, slipped the roles assigned me, gone off script. Thereafter, I would not be actor but author.

Across five rows of wooden benches, a mature, swarthy man from one of the former Soviet Republics sat facing me. I was otherwise alone in the carriage. He alternated between nodding off and peering sourly through the glaze of his reflection. On the right side of the train shone the lights of satellite towns, on the other blackness but for the panes of light trawling along outside and an occasional stand of birch trees. Beyond were the storied Russian forests where impish spirits waylaid visitors, at times fatally. In folk custom, visitors had to turn their clothes inside out and wear their shoes on opposite feet if they were to have any hope of escape. My own disguise was rather less conspicuous.

The interior doors at the end of the carriage were tracking open and partway closed with the train's suburban lurch. Two men loitering in the breezeway pushed into our carriage. The skinny man stayed near the doors while his muscly companion strode forward and bent toward the southerner like a solicitous usher. "Come with us, black monkey," he said.

The southerner feigned sleep. The man grabbed onto his arm, but he pulled away and kept his head pressed to the window, not once looking in my direction.

The business with the fake passport had called for risk and exposed me to folly, and I'd come through unharmed and not a little proud. I got to my feet as if all of that meant something. "Leave him alone," I called out across the carriage, surprised by the brave disgust in my tone.

Muscles spread his arms with terrifying confidence and started coming for me. I'd just reached the emergency call button at the other end of the carriage when I was turned, lifted, and slammed against the doors. A fissure of pain opened along my back. He held me dangling there, twisting my shirt so tightly that the skin twisted, too. When he punched me, his fist seemed larger than my entire head. A knee in the groin broke my fall so that I landed gasping in a disjointed crumple. He towered over me, shaking his knuckles open. I tried saying Okay, Okay, I get your point, but it just came out in a weird bellow. He kicked me in the stomach, once, twice, and finished up by roughing his boot sole against my cheek as the canned female voice announced my stop and the conductor's irate voice boomed from the speaker.

"Fucking foreigners," Muscles sneered.

The train pulled into a station. Mother Russia's conscripts, their homeland defended, shot jags of spit at the southerner and sauntered out. No one boarded our carriage.

The southerner was hovering nearby. "I'm not your problem," I got out, tonguing away the taste of blood. He hoisted me up and into the breezeway, pushed me against the wall and slipped under my arm, which fell onto him in comradely fashion. It was such pure surrender. He could roll me into a ditch or abandon me at a station, and I wouldn't have it in me to protest. His hostility wasn't what I expected, though. Befuddled with pain, I didn't require honesty at this juncture.

"You are an idiot, really an idiot. You're a problem here." He stabbed at his temple. "Is it what I wanted? And now you're my responsibility. They raise you stupid in your country?"

Unable to defend myself, I shambled back through the carriage doors and dropped in jerky stages to smear my hands over the gritty linoleum, searching one-eyed for the souvenirs of the skirmish: my glasses. He'd have to show a genuine willingness to help me, or I wouldn't move from the spot. I would ride to the end of the line and where then I didn't know.

We hobbled out of the train at the next stop. Along the platform and up and down the steps and out through the station, I felt I was floating. Since my ticket was for an earlier stop, he gave me his and jumped the turnstile. The town was cool and abandoned at this hour and serene except for the blare of the alarm he'd set off. Around us dogs loped in wary circles. The mangiest dog shied away, its fore- and hind-ends seeming to belong to different dogs, so that it moved like two sides of a conflict struggling to disavow their bonds of flesh and ligament and bone. Few streetlights were lit away from the main strip, and the apartment windows were black or televised blue. The weird, low, whitish headlights of a BMW bumped over the road. I stood motionless in its path until my reluctant guardian steered me to safety.

His mother removed my shoes at the entrance of their apartment and installed me on the sofa bed and administered to the cuts with a rag dipped in warm antiseptic water. At one point, her son, his undershirt lifted, gestured to his ribs. She dismissed him in Georgian and gave me a wink.

"Nationalists," I said, but she shushed me. How much more dignified it was to be tended to by an old woman who cared not as a friend or relative would, that is, oppressively. She reminded me again that in my years of living abroad, living among strangers, mercy had been my near-constant companion.

Without bothering to close the door of the closet-toilet, I let out a bloody, lurching stream of piss. In the adjoining washroom, humid with wet laundry, a smeared face shown in the mirror. The frames of my glasses were lopsided, pinching. The left eye was swollen shut and weeping. The lips were puffy flaps. A few teeth were loose in their blood-lined sockets, and I could feel but not see one upper front tooth was chipped. More visceral than the physical trauma was the lingering sensation of the boot's gritty impress on my cheek; that and the concussive sounds his fist had made with my head.

The woman made me drink sulfurous mineral water and swallow three aspirin. Then she shook red pepper onto a compress with her vigorous, dew-lapped arm, dabbed the cut under my eye, and covered the swelling with a frozen carp wrapped in a dishtowel. Each time she roused me during that hallucinatory night, she prodded me in Russian for my name and age and the names of my parents as well as for my address and telephone number.

My intrusion into their lives ended with less fanfare. Aside from a bit of soreness and fatigue, my legs were in decent shape, if unsteady. From groin upward I was much more fragile and had to plot my course step by dizzying step, my back feeling out of line, out of their apartment, out of the courtyard, out along the main street at an infirm pace. Commuters were crammed together in the Moscow-bound train, yet they kept away from me as though offended by the marks of such unseemly violence. Under normal circumstances, I'd have taken pleasure in being shunned.


The first several days, countless in their way, were a test of my resolve to lead a separate life, even in extreme conditions. I'd become pure body, alert only to its pains and discomforts. Every thought stuck to the lacerations, the murky bruises and sniggering lip, the mushy nourishment I dribbled down my chin; higher thoughts hovered out of reach. Sulking around the apartment, I listened over and over again to the first minute of a Russian language cassette. Kak vas zavyt? Otkuda vy? I would hear, and in each pause I answered with my new name and nationality until it became my name and nationality.

Several times the local militia pounded on the steel door of my apartment. I watched them through the eyehole paying visits to the other apartments on my landing, searching out Russian males who weren't registered for national service. I was otherwise left alone to stage the next scenes in the breakup between past and future, between seeming and being, between biography and autobiography. Flensing the old life was a gory operation, and now wasn't the time to turn squeamish.

As I limbered up, I began to pack for the long journey ahead. Deciding what to leave behind required some forethought. It had to appear I was going on a summer vacation from which I expected to return. That meant most of the books and all of the bootleg DVDs and winter clothing would have to stay behind.

My colleagues came knocking the afternoon before I was due to leave for Petersburg. I made no noise as I rested my head against the leather-lined side of the door and listened to them confer on the landing. They were Franny, Tom, and Philip, two Americans and a Brit. All of us were in our mid-20s and English teachers at a local language school. They were pleasant enough, but I'd kept some distance between us over the year we'd worked together.

Tom and Philip were irritated: Wasn't his train tomorrow morning, was he really leaving for the summer without a word, he's a bigger dick than we thought if he's crapping out on the farewell party, etc. Franny didn't weigh in. After another round of knocking, she suggested they wait for me at the restaurant with a beer in hand. Their voices retreated down the stairs, and I had a fleet desire to bang on the door from the inside and cry for them to let me out. But the desire smoldered and extinguished, leaving me disgusted by my histrionics and weakness. That disgust: I'd use it to harden myself.

Franny knocked a few hours later. I hesitated to let her in but then decided an evening of closure might be a comfort to us both. If she was surprised by my state, she didn't let on. We were drinking red wine and smoking in the kitchen as the long dusk began.

"I left them grumbling over their drinks. They thought they'd been making headway with you. 'This is Russia. You need friends here.' They're not wrong. You were home all along, weren't you?" I nodded. "What happened?"

"I opened my mouth. Self-censorship is still a good idea in this country."

"Where else did the thugs hurt you?"

"Just one thug. I have bruises all over. My ribs are a sight to behold."

"Let me."

"Not my style, as you should know."

"Don't you understand when someone's flirting with you?"

"So my injuries turn you on? Anyway, I ignore it. Peace of mind and all that."

Franny was a translator in training, graceful, talented, and possibly gifted. Over the course of the year, I'd softened toward the idea of her but had caught myself in time. I couldn't risk a relationship. I had to be hard, clenched, or else I might fail at my plan. While trying to lead me out of myself, she had unknowingly helped prepare me to pull away, to make deeper cuts.

Tiny flies buzzing around the kitchen drew my attention to the bowl of fruit on the table. The peaches were rotten at the points where they touched. I got up to throw them in the trash and open the door onto the narrow terrace. There arose the shouts of pasty-faced children running in the courtyard below. The facade of the neighboring apartment block, blue and white during the day, was a sheet of twilit orange tiles. She put her arms around me from behind.

"Can't you just leave me be?"

Each person you meet is a potential direction, or distraction, or obstacle. I couldn't allow her to be any of those and elbowed her back. The pain in my ribs made me flinch.

"You need it. Not because it's sex exactly, but because it's intimate. You're so reluctant to let down your defenses."

"Spare me your psycho-babble, please. I don't want it, I don't want to want, and I don't want to be wanted. You can't accept a reasoned defense for living a life alone, is that it? Can't I be indifferent?"

She laughed accidentally. "A reasoned defense."

"Men think. Women laugh," I snapped. I was close to tears.

The pressure she exerted on my chest and back had a strange, destabilizing effect. I stopped reasoning, felt queasy. She calmed everything except my erratic heart, and then it too fell into line, a deep, regular, flesh-wrapped boom, my telltale heart. She sat me down and straddled my lap with a weight and heat that quickened my traitorous body. My arms remained limp against the chair; my hands didn't seek her out.

It was finished in a few minutes. I knocked my head against the wall and asked her to leave. She was whispering, caressing. If I relaxed my legs, she and her cant would slam to the floor.

"Sorry," I said. "Could you get off?"

She padded down the hall to the bathroom. I pulled up my trousers in a hurry and tore open the filters of several cigarette butts and rubbed them between my fingers. Sniffing the tar blotted out the odors of our animal frenzy.

It was dark now, and late. Below in the courtyard, in a cone of light, the puffy-cheeked woman who always spent her nights around these blocks was screaming at a tree. She cursed and kicked up the sandbox, she screamed anew. Then, as if she were a figment projected from out of my distress, she coughed away into the darkness.

The anticipated long lazy day in third class was instead a long hurdling passage through monotonous Russian countryside during which I heaved in a series of strangulated hiccups and held the sore cords of my neck, confident not a drop of liquor or bile remained in my stomach. The slender arm swinging from the bunk above, swaying for eight hours, was hypnotizing. Nothing broke through my stupor as I exited Moscow Station onto Rebellion Square—not the obelisk celebrating heroic Leningrad nor the teeming sidewalks and roundabout nor the dreadful spangled billboards of imported late capitalism. Dulled and disgusted, I nixed the plan of strolling along Nevsky Prospect to Palace Embankment and made for the hostel, there to wash off the night and the train and collapse.


Petersburg—my beloved, haggard city. Several years before, during the economic upheavals of 1998, I'd lived and worked in Petersburg. In those brief seven months, I had come to adore its streets and canals, its wrought fences, its bright facades and reverential statues. It was a city of uninhibited fantasy, one place where the fantasies imposed on me didn't contend with my own. Russia had twice been my home partly for that reason. When I was in Russia, people back home didn't live their fantasies through me because they didn't have Russian fantasies, only Russian nightmares.

A friend was expecting me, the one formidable Russian intellectual I could count as a friend. He was supposed to be the last intimate I would meet. No one answered at his apartment or on his cell-phone, however, and the avant-garde theatre where two of his satires had premiered was shut for renovations. While the reversal of circumstances unnerved me—I was the person disappearing—perhaps it was better that another distraction was eliminated within the larger process of elimination. The approach to my new life had appeared with some suddenness, and such twists and turns could only help prepare me for the inevitable surprises lying in wait.

The days were given over to long walks around the islands and long layovers in cafés, the nights to reading at the hostel. Then a Norwegian guest took the bunk above mine. He was pleasant enough but lonely, an NGO worker in Bosnia-Herzegovina whose girlfriend hadn't been able to join him on holiday. The potential for that quick, barren camaraderie so often sought by lone travelers forced me from my stable refuge onto the streets of the city.

The nights, dusky but not yet white, were seedy and hostile. Wherever I wandered there was the seethe of sexual folly. Dropping back by the hostel for my notebook, I came upon the Norwegian beating off under his covers, our entire bunk shaking. At the train station, where I bought my ticket to Warsaw, a huge Rom woman squeezed my buttock and offered 200 rubles of love! Her fecal-smelling, bright-skirted companions waiting nearby burst into laughter as I shoved her away.

On my last evening in the city, I went to pay my respects at the bronze statue on Vladimirskaya Square. Thin and bearded, seated with legs crossed and fingers joined over his knee, Dostoyevsky gazed down from his plinth with visionary gauntness. Below him still rioted the savage feelings and moral conundrums he'd left behind. No other writer had penned more supreme descriptions of the chafing torments of humiliation, sometimes sharp, sometimes smothering, always brutal and indecent. I thought of the underground man, of Pralinsky's attempts to connect with humankind. Too often the same sick bloom of feeling thwarted my own chances to feel at ease in the world. Maybe I needed to escape Dostoyevsky as well. He understood me from the inside.

Sulky whores were soliciting drivers and baiting young men as they exited the metro station. One of them, track-marked and bruised, wearing pink glossy boots, was pacing slow and stylized, all hip and jut and ragged prance. Another whore pulled off her crooked wig and began walking, then surged into running between snagged lanes of cars, performing as she did a graceless striptease until she was naked and screaming wild things and banging on car windows, until she vanished into the fumes of red-lit exhaust.


When the steam in the banya reached an almost unbearable degree, the other bathers and I gripped our bundle of birch twigs and thrashed each other's backs. Relieved, loose-limbed, skin red and throbbing, I went to rinse off. Russians could spend hour upon hour alternating between the hot and cold rooms of the baths, but one round was cleansing enough for me. I was ready for my last visit in Petersburg.

Before 1998, my exposure to Russian painting had been modest. I'd been familiar with Kandinsky's festive chaos, with Chagall's dull palette and whimsy. Both artists had inspired in me a dead, cold disregard, while Repin's paintings were touching and humane if too often academic. The shift in my perspective happened on my first visit to the Russian Museum. Filonov, Petrov-Vodkin, Vrubel, Grigoriev, and Maliavin suddenly framed my view onto an unknown vanguard. I hadn't been enthusiastic about Malevich. His most abstract paintings might have been risky experiments in which he attempted to capture pure space; yet in their approach to zero, they were centered on forms with little or no ballast of representation. What's beyond a painting of a black square on a white background? A painting of a white square on a white background. And what's beyond that? I needed more to grasp onto, more of the impure mundane.

I must have seen it on earlier visits and must have paused in front of it, unmoved: Complicated Premonition (Torso in a Yellow Shirt), circa 1932. Neither its weirdness nor its primary colors had caught my attention back then. My life had been different. Back then I hadn't needed or been prepared for it.

The torso of a peasant in a yellow jerkin dominated the painting. The torso was topped with a long white neck and an oval head nearly touching the upper edge of the canvas. The head was faceless. The facelessness was pure white.

My skin tingled. I felt buoyant. The dissonance between selves, between the younger and older selves, the self that hadn't been ready and the self that now was, was startling.

The figure stood against a deep blue sky. His long arms extended down by his sides, beyond the lower edge of the painting. I leaned in close. I stood back to take in the painting entire. I tried, ineffectually, to shift my focus to the background, but the blank face was too powerful. Were there others who saw in this painting a premonition of their most intrinsic desires? I hoped so. I hoped not.

In one of the first rooms of the museum, a woman had been praying before a medieval triptych of the Madonna and Child. Bowing down, trembling to grace the iconostasis with her lips as she was permitted to in church, she'd looked transfigured by her ready access of the divine. Her rapture couldn't have been more appropriate.

"Young man," the guard woman said. "The museum is closing."

I'd forgotten she was tatting in the corner. I looked at her, blinked. She was a heavyset woman with garish lipstick and a plump back rounded at ear level. Our footsteps over the wood floors were quick and quiet. Her hands, buckled behind her, trailed a thread of white tatting. She was speaking in a low mutter. I felt something plastered to my back. Reaching beneath my shirt, I pulled out a birch leaf. It smelled of forest and sweat.

"What?" I asked.

"I said I met him once. Malevich. The year before he died, I was five or six. My father brought him a little food. The man was terrifying. I asked why. My father told me to hush. Later I understood. It's as Malevich himself wrote on the back of the canvas. It was the emptiness, the loneliness, the hopelessness of life."

Another guard interrupted us, and the two women fell into conversation about a broom, about tomorrow. I waited outside the gates for more than an hour but in the end wandered away with my questions. She must have left the museum through another exit.


The brief jog that the Petersburg-Warsaw line makes through Belarus wasn't on my expected itinerary. The border guard riffled through my American passport. "No transit visa. It is a problem." He buttoned the passport into his uniform pocket and continued along the corridor. My berth companion, a Russian from Petersburg who'd shared his black bread and salami, advised me of protocol. I would need to track down the guard.

He was poking into the bags of a family in the next carriage and grinned as soon as he saw me. We went into an empty berth where he drew the curtains and stood close, peering down with cocksure authority. I held up a $20 bill and some leftover rubles. To my surprise he didn't balk at the sum but returned my passport and wished me a safe journey. His Polish counterpart was more relaxed, even jocular. Entering our berth, he said, "Pistols? Hashish? No?" and barely glanced at the passport before stamping my entry into Poland.


I pulled on the ski mask as instructed and knocked at the graffiti-blazoned door on the 16th floor. The orange spider grinning on its web was a fitting symbol for the underground network that had brought me to this grim apartment block on the outskirts of Krakow. I had a tantalizing hunch this procedure was being repeated in every block in the vicinity, endless forgeries of identity circulating in practically identical buildings.

After the frisking, I squeezed my feet into a pair of grubby slippers while the man at the door checked my dollars under a blue light, thrash metal hissing from his earphones. He didn't wear one of the strangely gratifying masks. His face was pink and taut, seared into a mask of skin.

The dusty apartment smelled of cooking, the windows were grimy, the shelves were crowded with books and rows of model tanks. I entered a room where a boy, playing on the floor with one of the tanks, made sounds of detonation. A girl in a pink tutu was changing out the newspapers in the finches' cage. The man at the desk also wore a mask, but his inky hands indicated he was at least sixty. He took up the stamp and opened my passport in the center. Its impact sounded like the call to creation. Now that I'd entered Poland on the new passport, I could exit into my new life.

"What's your name?" he asked, studying the first page. "Where are you from? When were you born?"

I answered. Then I told him Atesh sent his regards. The man nodded.

Two other masked individuals were waiting in the anteroom, and one of them was whistling.


The tourist office in Zakopane directed me to a handsome log house on the outskirts of town. Barbarella and her elderly mother enjoyed hosting foreign guests in their spare room, particularly Americans, whom they considered good-natured and transparent. They didn't mind speaking Russian since they didn't speak English. But Lukasz, the son due in the next morning, would insist on speaking my native language. I suspected he'd been called home so he would have the opportunity to chat with a foreigner.

That evening, in a restaurant serving hearty country fare, I pushed away the lard-coated plates and wrote a batch of laconic postcards, guarding against any accidental revelations that would foil my plan. Going hiking in the Tatras tomorrow. Zakopane is a lovely town. On a few I wrote, See you shortly. I should arrive home before this postcard.

And I thought back over all of the complications that had led me to this point.

Of the nervy steps forward and the cowardly steps back.

Of my family and friends, and their knowledge of me coming awkwardly into my own.

Of their hopes and expectations.

Of the courage I lacked to flout them outright, and the honesty.

Of moving abroad, and how distance was no longer satisfying enough.

Of the pain I would cause, and how that pain would make my disappearance more transgressive, more vivifying.

And then I brought myself up short. That was quite enough of that. Explaining and justifying were just another vulgar habit from the past. Where I was headed, I wouldn't need to explain or justify myself any longer.

My hosts were in their backyard grilling sausages over an open fire. Lukasz had arrived earlier than expected. He gave me a can of beer (he himself was dry) and pressed me into service. My periodic attempts to include his mother and grandmother in Russian were brushed aside. His role was to translate, while theirs was to listen, and they did indeed pay us rapt attention.

Not that he was disagreeable company. An earnest young man, a seminary student in Krakow, he made me feel, though I was just 27, frivolous and rather old. His goth-punk appearance—black clothes, shaven head—jarred oddly with his priestly ambitions. Nevertheless, he had impeccable beliefs and admirable passion.

"How does your mother feel about you becoming a priest?" I asked. "Since you're her only child."

"She's ecstatic. As a Catholic. Also as my mother. I was a dangerous boy, a lover of alcohol, drugs, and disrespect for God and family. I'm better now."

Lukasz fetched an album of photographs dating from John Paul II's 1997 visit to Zakopane. Upon learning of the visit, Lukasz had recalled his years as an altar boy and decided to attend the mass on nearby Mount Giewont. It was his turning point, his moment of transfiguration. Redeemed, he felt emboldened to redeem others. He called it soul hunting. Here in Zakopane but now more frequently in Krakow, he prowled the streets for those in need of spiritual intervention. "I knew danger, dark spirits," he said. "I am not innocent. It helps my hunt."

"Catholic," I said to his next question, because it was simpler to lie. To say I'd been raised Catholic would have alerted him to uncouth theological implications, and I wasn't in the mood to hear the rattle of his evangelical weaponry. Besides, if matters of the spirit moved him to humane dedication, I had little to dispute. I also reminded myself that an iconoclast needs icons, a rebel needs resistance. He was the apostle, I the apostate, and that in itself was an alliance.

"We hear strange stories about American Catholics," Lukasz said. "Is it really so important for you to disobey? And why do the big miracles occur in Europe? Our Lady of Czestochowa. Our Lady of Fatima. Our Lady of Meddugorje. Our Lady of Lourdes."

Holding back a jibe about the peasantry's weakness for holy visions, I assured him my faith was in line with papist pap, no counterfeiting or waffling allowed. Lukasz beamed. He told his womenfolk, who beamed in unison, with frightful firelit fervor. I could have stayed on in the house and married the daughter, had there been a daughter. It being midweek, I thankfully wouldn't have to carry on the charade at Sunday mass.

When we turned to more earthly matters, I had to lie again. My plan for the following morning was to go by bus to a trailhead to the Tatra Mountains. I was going to walk to Morskie Oko Lake, sleep at a refuge, and return on the funicular late the next afternoon.

"Excellent," Lukasz said. "Mother will prepare our food."

"No, really, but thank you. I can't take up your time."

"Yes, you can. It is important."

Try though I did to put him off, he persisted with the most pigheaded arguments. It was bad form to refuse hospitality. Solitude was gloomy, not to mention dangerous in mountains renowned for their capricious weather. It was an advantage to have someone along versed in local custom and national speech habits—and couldn't be anything but. I wanted him to come, really, but was reluctant to impose.

"Who are you to insist?" I erupted. "Who are you to make plans for me? I'm going alone, goddamnit!"

Lukasz's jaw wobbled. I'd hit my mark. I forced out another goddamnit for sure effect.

His grandmother was woken from her fireside slumber. His mother looked jolted. Lukasz looked embarrassed for me, then, reprimanded by his mother, for himself. Once he received report of the American who'd gone missing, he'd at least have the satisfaction of being right about the dangers of hiking solo.

In the black silence before dawn, once I finished reading my journal, I crept out to the backyard. The journal was dense with details, travels, humiliations, small guarded feelings and petty fears, with hopes kept and hopes abandoned. I couldn't deny it revealed me, but in a series of inchoate forms, early drafts of myself strung along a trajectory of becoming. At this critical juncture, I placed a few torn pages on the embers of the barbecue, then added the signatures one by one, and finally the hard covers. The paper trail went up in flames.


Not many hikers were in the valley that drizzly day. Clouds loomed, speckled rain, and drifted off for moments of resplendent sunlight. Mist descended, then lifted like a shroud, and four nuns ambled by in habits, skirts, and sensible leather boots.

I climbed up to a small lake and into a stillness that dispelled my less inspired thoughts. The peaks and boulders were gray and sharp. The sunlit meadows were so saturated with color as to verge on the unnatural. Human life, with its pressures and irritations, couldn't trouble the placid beauty. Grace inflected every step and glance.

A path circled partway around the lake, then left the shore to ascend the ridge above it. Making the ridge, I found a promontory giving a broad survey of the terrain. Miniscule figures in bright raingear progressed along the green-gray valley floor. I quickly ate my fill of Barbarella's cabbage-stuffed rolls and set out again. It was still a fair distance to the village where I planned to meet an onward bus, and rain was coming down in a drizzle.

After an hour of climbing toward a craggy peak, I reached a split in the trail. One path continued upwards while the other cut along the northern face. Staying low, I reached a bluff that plummeted in rugged crevices for several hundred feet and terminated in a cascade of scree, thinning into meadow's edge. I stripped off my clothes and stood there for a moment, shivering, vulnerable, convinced. At such rarefied heights, the air was thin, dizzying. I keeled over and wretched.

Dressed in another pair of trousers, another shirt, another sweater, I stuffed my shoulder pack with a few provisions and threw the cast-off clothes into a crevice. Into the backpack went the old passport, some cash, and my camera.

The backpack, miming the sensation in my gut, appeared to fall languorously at first. Then, interfered with by the wind or not thrown with enough force, it smashed against the cliff and snagged in a crevice.

The old life was put down. From this point on, the narrative of my life belonged to me alone. The dubious absence of the body, shaped like a body, would corrupt in time to an abstract memory of the missing man they thought I was.

No one whom I encountered in the next 24 hours expected they should take notice of me. None of them could enter into the shrewd dreams transpiring behind such an unremarkable face. In none of their lives would I become stranded. When late that evening I crossed the third border into a state of perfect strangeness, among perfect strangers, it was still too early to alert the authorities that one Joseph Hearne had gone missing.

You will know me no more.